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A Colder War | The Nation

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A Colder War

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The second front on which the struggle over the cold war arsenals took place was that of heads of state. In Arsenals of Folly, Rhodes concentrates almost all his attention at this level on Reagan and Gorbachev, and he devotes several chapters to the evolution of their views, beginning with their boyhood years. He is right to do so because they brought something entirely new to the official debate. Traveling along their separate routes, both had somehow escaped the limitations of the war-within-a-war raging in their bureaucracies. Both were nuclear abolitionists. The paradoxes involved in this development, when superadded to the contradictions of conventional nuclear policy, are mind-boggling. How did a man of democratic and nonviolent bent like Gorbachev rise to the apex of a system as brutal as the Soviet Union's--and then propose full nuclear disarmament? How did Ronald Reagan, whose Administration gathered into one place the greatest number of nuclear war fighters ever assembled, arrive at the doves' conclusion, announced by him before the Japanese Diet in 1983, that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought"--and also champion full disarmament? The unbearable tragedy is that when the two leaders came within a hair's breadth of agreeing to proceed to their common goal at their summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986, the enterprise was tripped up by misleading advice from some of the very war fighters whose premises Reagan had rejected.

About the Author

Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Lannan Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at...

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That tale, which in Rhodes's hands reads like a first-class mystery story, is too complex to reprise here. Suffice it to note that not only was Reagan an unlikely nuclear abolitionist but, guided by a visceral revulsion against nuclear weapons, he may have been unwilling to launch nuclear retaliation even if the United States were attacked with nuclear weapons first. Rhodes quotes Reagan's adviser on Soviet affairs, Jack Matlock Jr.:

I think deep down he doubted that, even if the United States was struck, that he could bring himself to strike another country with [nuclear weapons]. He could never hint, but I sort of sensed [that].

Amazingly, Gorbachev was of like mind. According to the Russian historian Vladislav Zubok, Gorbachev once participated in a war game simulating an American attack on the Soviet Union, but, when the critical moment came, balked. Later, Gorbachev stated in an interview:

From the central control panel came the signal: missiles are flying towards our country, make a decision. Minute after minute passes, information pours in. I have to give the command for a strike of retaliation.... I said: "I will not press the button even for training purposes."

As Rhodes embarks on his fourth volume, he approaches the present moment, or whatever it will be when he finishes the book. History has yet to disclose the end of the epic he has committed himself to write. Arsenals of Folly gives plenty of cause for gloom, but also reasons not to abandon hope. Were the leaders of the two superpowers of that time not only fervent nuclear abolitionists but nuclear pacifists as well, as Matlock and Zubok suggest? If these reports are correct, they leave half a century of strategic calculation, all of which has depended on the certitude of nuclear retaliation, a shambles. They suggest that a radical rethinking of the conventional wisdom regarding nuclear arms is not only decades overdue but also possible.

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